By Steve Magness
I was 18 years old, living out a scene that I could only have dreamed of a few months earlier. The day after running the Pre classic I was going on a run with some of the best athletes in the world; Olympians, NCAA champions, record holders. Men I had only seen on TV, read about in Runner’s World. They were heroes to a young running-obsessed high school kid.
I’d heard of doping before. I was well aware of the rumors and allegations surrounding professional baseball and as a track-nut knew about the bygone era of East German doping and the Ben Johnson fiasco. But this was the first time I’d come face to face with allegations and it was unsettling. Here were a few of top the runners in the world and they were throwing around knowledgeable statements on the hidden underbelly of the sport. A sport which I assumed was relatively pure.
Move ahead another year or two and I’m in graduate school training with the fastest American miler ever. We had a special guest lecturer, Verner Møller for one of my graduate school courses. Dr. Møller had found himself smack in the middle of the Tour de France doping controversy, having written the book The Doping Devil, which detailed the history of drug use in sport. He was a rational but jaded individual who was fond of telling us that no one could make it to the very top without drugs. I would spend class time arguing with Dr. Møller, using my training partner Alan Webb, as an example. He would listen, but then politely scoff back, probably thinking “This poor naïve kid” in his head.
What doping does is it destroys dreams. It kills what makes sport so unique; the idea that hard-work matters. That we all have a set limit and with enough training we can explore where those limits lie.
As we age, we lose youths innocence. We become jaded. Scoffing at the naïve youth with their foolish dreams as Dr. Møller did with me. We start making comments like “everyone is suspect” or “They are all doping, so what’s the point.”
Whenever I feel my jadedness towards sport creeping up, I’m reminded of the innocence of the high school runners I used to coach or look at the wide eyed freshman who step foot on our college campus. They have dreams and goals; aspirations of glory shepherded by hard work and dedication. They truly believe that if they work hard, with a bit of luck and talent, they too might reach the level of the runners they read about.
What isn’t dancing in their heads is the thought that one day, to reach that level, I’m going to have to make a choice to take drugs or not. We’re all faced with difficult choices in life. We all come to a point where we come face to face the upper reaches of our talent. We can see our limitations on the horizon as we gradually approach them.
It used to be that you kept banging your head against the wall, maybe changed something in training or doubled down on your commitment. But now, whenever we come close to that limit, drugs, or grey-area substances, become the easy solution. It’s a sad time to be an athlete.
When I consider the choices that athletes are forced to make, I often ponder what makes someone choose to go over to the “dark side.” It’s not that everyone who makes a wrong choice is “evil.” Instead, it’s the people they surround themselves with and where they derive their motivation from that all often decides the direction that athlete goes. We all start out innocent, attempting to improve with hard work, but these internal and external forces are often the determining factor in whether we cross the line.
If they are surrounded by Ego-driven individuals who are obsessed with succeeding regardless of the cost; or coaches who see athletes as pawns and not people; or doctors who cross lines for financial reasons, then it’s no wonder an athlete falls into the drug culture. If they have been taught that winning is all that matters or that they are defined by what they do in the sport, then going down the wrong path is more likely.
The lessons we teach for why we compete in the sport matter. The morals and ethics that coaches, trainers, peers, doctors, agents, and even sports marketing executives, display often determine whether an athlete chooses the shady side of the sport or stays on the right side of the line. It’s for this reason that the Clean Sport Movement is needed. We need to change the norm, change what is acceptable from all of these groups. We need to set a new standard.
Overall, when I consider the drug issue in sport, I go back to why I coach, why I am involved in a sport with little financial reward and a myriad of problems?
It’s about developing people, not athletes, not runners, people. Drugs, and the shortcut they provide, do not do that.
Steve Magness has served as a professional coach for the last decade, having coached numerous athletes to top 15 at the World Championships and Olympic Games. He is the co-author of the forthcoming book, Peak Performance, and his first book, The Science of Running, was published in 2014. He currently coaches at the University of Houston. In addition, he is author of the popular blog, The Science of Running, and The Peak Performance Newsletter. He serves as an adjunct professor of Strength and Conditioning at St. Mary's University. In his own running, Magness ran a 4:01 mile in High School. He can be found on twitter @stevemagness